A guest blog from Tom Daly
Last Wednesday, 10 December, fresh from launching the National Action Plan of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, gave a seminar at the School of Law to mark International Human Rights Day; established by the UN in 1950 “to bring to the attention ‘of the peoples of the world’ the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”.
In a wide-ranging speech of some 30 minutes, Mr Muižnieks described his role and took the pulse of human rights in Europe at present, with a sobering reflection on recent and ongoing failures, and the very real threats to human rights across Europe, leavened to some extent by discussion of positive developments and hope for the future. This brief summary cannot do justice to the full speech, or to the Q&A session which followed, but will attempt to convey its main messages.
The Commissioner’s Role
The Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe, Mr Muižnieks explained, is an independent, non-judicial and impartial office, tasked with monitoring human rights protection across the 47-member Council of Europe, from Iceland to Azerbaijan. The core of the Commissioner’s role involves very frequent country visits to assess the situation on the ground, issuing reports with recommendations concerning human rights, and issuing thematic reports on matters such as children’s rights and LGBT rights, and human rights concerns raised by the economic crisis and migration.
The Commissioner is therefore at the very coalface of human rights protection in Europe and Central Asia; and perhaps uniquely placed to give a bird’s-eye assessment of human rights across the region.
Failures, Threats and Dangers
Mr Muižnieks outlined a number of the key issues he has faced in his 20-month tenure to date, involving some 15 country visits and accompanying reports, as well as thematic reports. The picture he painted was of a region in which the post-war consensus on human rights protection, and the key mechanisms for protection, are under acute strain. We are faced, not just with serious human rights abuses in newer Council member states such as Russia and Azerbaijan, but a widespread fraying of the very fabric of human rights protection in Europe.
The Council of Europe is still addressing the long shadow cast by post-9/11 counter-terrorism measures which ran roughshod across the rights of suspects, most starkly the ‘black sites’ established by the CIA in Poland, Lithuania and Romania. More recently, the Snowden revelations and their fall-out have again highlighted the alarming ineffectiveness of existing democratic oversight concerning security forces’ activities.
The economic crisis, coupled with the EU’s institutional crisis, has created a toxic atmosphere in many states: EU organs have watched with “ineffectual concern” at authoritarian backsliding in Hungary, Romania and Greece; the rise of far-right movements across Europe; and, in particular, the dramatic ascent of Golden Dawn in Greece and its contempt for democracy and human rights. Allied to this, poor national policies on migration, and the absence of any real policy at the EU level, is having extremely negative consequences for migrants’ rights; Mr Muižnieks also emphasised that it is a delusion to believe that the refugee crisis arising due to the Syrian conflict will not affect Europe.
In sharp contrast to its effective action against the rise of Jörg Haider in 2000, the euro and wider crises have greatly diminished the EU’s capacity and soft power to address many of these negative developments. The currency of the EU as a regional actor, and the currency of the European social model, have been greatly tarnished in the current climate of declining pensions, massive youth unemployment, child poverty and resurgence of child labour. The Commissioner argued that, to protect human rights, there should be a baseline for social protection; addressed in an Issue Paper on ‘Safeguarding human rights in times of economic crisis’ his office published last month.
Meanwhile, in the very heartland of democratic Europe, the UK – a founding member of the Council of Europe and one of Europe’s longest lived democracies – is openly defying the European Court of Human Rights, by expressly refusing to implement the Hirst decision on prisoners’ voting rights. Mr Muižnieks was frank about the implications of any attempt to ‘cherry pick’ implementation of the Court’s decisions: it sets a dangerous precedent which will all too eagerly be followed by certain states, and would undermine – and could even collapse – the Convention system. Putting aside the merits or demerits of the Hirst decision, it is hard to ignore his stance that the UK should either fully comply, or leave the system.
Hope for the Future?
The speech was not, however, relentlessly pessimistic. Mr Muižnieks noted that Scotland’s adoption of a human rights action plan has been mirrored in various states across Europe, and he explained the very real difference that the Commissioner’s office can make, and has made, across Europe. He emphasised the importance of strengthening the Convention system for human rights protection, and, particularly, implementation of ECtHR judgments.
However, leaving the seminar, it was hard not to think that he will be a very busy man in the months and years to come.
Follow the Commissioner on Twitter: Nils Muiznieks@CommissionerHR
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